Meet Mark Cullen

Canada's best known gardening personality, Mark Cullen believes that Canadians of all ages need to play more - preferably in the dirt. A best-selling author with over 400,000 books in print, Mark reaches over one million Canadians every week through various media outlets. He is Home Hardware's horticultural spokesperson and regularly contributes to various magazines, gardening shows and newsletters. With a familiar style that people can relate to, he delivers a message that is compelling, fun, informative and inspirational - all based on his organic approach to gardening. In his spare time Mark enjoys driving his Ford Model A - and of course he loves to garden.

Frost is on the Pumpkins

Well the frost is on the pumpkins now…. The girl at the gas station said that they are calling for snow in Ottawa.
Note to self: contact brother Peter in Kanata and give him a hard time.

Our home in Stouffville Ontario (about one hour north of Toronto) is not immune from the ravages of an early winter.

Snow may be cold and it may remind us of Christmas, but for gardeners it is a great motivator to get those things done that we have been putting off.

The good news is that the first few snow falls generally don’t last. Thank goodness for temperatures above freezing. This is the redemption that nature sends our way after reminding us that winter is coming.

I had been putting off planting the rest of my spring flowering bulbs….. Tulips and crocus are finally put to bed. I would recommend that you do the same, even though technically you can wait with the tulip planting until Christmas. This is only true if you can dig a hole. If the ground is frozen, my experience tells me that you will have trouble.

This is a great week to wrap your upright evergreens. Junipers will benefit from a double layer –one to prevent sun burn (which usually occurs at the end of winter) another to break the wind. No, not that wind. The north and west wind that dries out the foliage and turns it brown. Check out the new Mark’s Choice ‘Mummie Wrap’ for this purpose at Home Hardware (item #5094-519). We improved on the original product by making the width broader.

Broad Leafed Plants.

Same advice for yews and (if you are lucky enough to have any) rhododendrons.
Apply a coat of ‘Wilt-Pruf’ (sorry for the spelling but it is an American product so we don’t need to take credit for some marketing person attempting to be clever here in Canada). This stuff really does work by insulating the moisture inside of the foliage of evergreens while still allowing the foliage to breathe. Wilt-Pruf is effective on boxwood too. And it makes a great Christmas tree preservative. Available at independent garden centres and Home Hardware (item #5097-806).

Fruit trees are very susceptible to rodent damage over winter. Think rats, mice and rabbits primarily. The best deterrent (and easiest to deal with) is to wrap a spiral plastic trunk protector from the bottom up. When you buy these get the biggest ones as the snow can mound deep and rabbits can stand on their hind legs if they really want to make a meal of your fruit tree bark.

Fruit trees only need rodent protection for the first 5 to 7 years or until the circumference of the trunk is about 8 to 10 cm thick. They are not interested in mature bark, just the young stuff.

I know that I have reminded you recently that this is the most important time of year for applying a good quality lawn fertilizer but it IS important. So, this is another reminder.

Indoors I wish to note that the new amaryllis crop is in. Yes, you can find all kinds of great looking amaryllis at garden centres and of course some hardware stores.
The best way to tell if you are buying a good quality amaryllis bulb is to look at the measure of its circumference. If the package indicates that it is smaller than a 26 cm bulb you are buying a small one and you will get small results. Fewer blooms, smaller blooms.

A ‘top sized’ amaryllis bulb is 27cm or bigger. More blooms: bigger blooms. Look for the new top sized Mark’s Choice Amaryllis at Home Hardware (item# 5029-303 red, 5029-304 striped). And yes, you can buy cheaper amaryllis elsewhere: that is not the point. Our competition who sell the undersized bulbs do not have customers sending them pictures of 3 stem plants loaded with up to 12 blooms…. I do.
Keep in mind that there some excellent varieties of amaryllis that are worthy of growing that are small by nature. Look them over and note that many of them are quite expensive (a really large amaryllis or one that is rare can run you $15 to $25).

If you are looking for a broad selection of truly exotic amaryllis go to and look over Dugald Cameron’s offerings. His bulbs always inspire me.

Christmas Presents!

I buy about 20 amaryllis this time of year and pot them up in new clay pots. I then put them in the basement and water them. It is cool down there and they are slow to grow. Which is what I want as most of them will end up as Christmas gifts. Great for a house warming and much longer lasting than a bottle of wine (though less intoxicating). Your hosts will think of you all winter; mostly in a good way as the show lasts for up to 6 weeks. Late in the winter a lazy gardener may wish that you would just show up and take it away as the leaves are not the most attractive thing. But that is a minor point.

For the ambitious reader I will tell you how to re-bloom your amaryllis in a later blog. Stay tuned.

Much ,much more to come. Gardening is the song that never ends… the tune just keeps changing.

Keep your knees dirty and remember that it ain’t over yet out of doors…even for Prairie gardeners.


Perennials: Some you cut down, some you leave standing.

The questions about what to cut down in your perennial garden and what to leave standing just keep coming.
I think that we need a ‘rule of thumb’ or something – a guide – so that when you are out there in your garden you can make an intelligent decision, “THIS is getting its head cut off, and this one will stand for the winter.”

Here is the best ‘guide’ that I can come up with:
IF it has a seed head on it that is mature or has not yet matured (one that birds might enjoy chowing down on) – leave it standing.
IF it has a rigid stem and will not blow over in winter winds – leave it standing.
IF it is an ornamental grass (Calamagrostis, Miscanthus, etc.) leave it standing.

IF it has floppy foliage that has already turned yellow or brown and looks poorly in your garden – cut it back and throw the leaves into your compost (e.g. daylilies and peonies).
IF it is ugly and you don’t like the look of it – cut it back.
IF the birds have had their time with the seed heads and there are no seeds left (like with many of my Echinacea) cut it back.
I am including this picture of my front yard as an illustration of what I decided to cut back and not….. Notice that ALL of the Shasta Daisies were cut back to about 5 cm. Some of the blue Veronica was cut back because it was full of an aggressive clematis – gone wild! – And I wanted to comb it out before winter. Other Veronica was left standing because it has seed heads on it that the birds will like.
Truth is there is no harm to cutting herbaceous perennials back to the ground or leaving them standing. I like some left upright for the winter for winter interest. Yes, the snow will fall on them instead of all of it falling on the ground and that can be interesting. Right now you may be thinking that that does not sound too attractive. But you have forgotten how desperate we Canadians become when winter really hits home.

Believe me – we are the people who escape from the indoors at the first sign of spring to hose down the driveway (the garden still has snow on it) and this feels like a trip to Florida.

The only danger of leaving them flat to the ground come spring is that they can rot there and can encourage the same thing to move through the crown or root structure of the plant.

For the most part Mother Nature takes care of the thing.

We are not all that far away from trick-or-treat time and you will likely be acquiring a pumpkin.

This is good. For one, the pumpkin is now our 7th most popular agricultural table crop and farmers need the money. Not that long ago pumpkins were hardly on the radar.

The odd thing is that many Canadians (dare I say, urban ones?) don’t view the pumpkin as a ‘food’ crop at all. I think that many actually believe that it is just another disposable commodity, like disposable diapers and Dixie cups. Truth is a pumpkin is 99% water.

So tell me, why is it that so many of us leave the pumpkin out for the trash pick up, like so much ‘garbage’?

Here is a much better idea: put it in your compost pile or your bin. Cut it up to make it ‘break down’ faster and it will take up much less room there.

Don’t have a compost? O.k. – just leave it on the surface of the soil – anywhere! – But not where the kids will be tempted to pick it up and throw it on the road.

Frost will come and it will go. We will get some thaws and then more frost. Your pumpkin will melt – before your eyes! - And you will be left with a thin – VERY thin – layer of orange pumpkin skin on the soil. You can dig this in come spring or break it up with a hoe.

That is it! You have saved some water from being dumped in the land fill (think of the trucking costs that you will save!) and your soil will be marginally better off for it.

Short list of things to do in the garden:
- Fertilize your lawn – this is the most important application of the year. Use a slow release nitrogen product for best results.
- Cut your lawn (maybe for the last time!) about 2 ½ inches or 6 cm high.
- Dig your carrots, leeks, left over potatoes etc. and store in bushel baskets ½ full of pure, dry sand. Put in your basement or fruit cellar.
- Yank out your annuals and finished veggie plants like tomatoes. Put them in your composter or compost pile.
- Plant Holland tulips and crocus.
- Prune cedar hedges.
- Begin thinking about winterizing your roses that are not of the ‘shrub’ type. Hybrid Teas, Grandifloras, Floribundas etc. will need about 50 cm (1 ½ feet) of fresh triple mix piled up from the bottom. If you live on the Prairies, now is a good time to do this. In central Canada and the Maritimes the best time is just before the Grey Cup game – the game is your reward for doing the job!
- Clean and sharpen your lawn mower before you put it away.

More next week folks!
Enjoy the harvest season ….. We can see the end of it on the horizon so get out and breathe deep!

Keep your knees dirty,


A Final Fall Checklist as Winter Approaches

Here in my zone 5 garden we have turned a significant page in the gardening year. Last night we experienced our first killing frost. Luckily I put bed sheets over my tropicals: the hibiscus will bloom another day. The bananas are not so lucky as they are too big to drape sheets over them. The frost has done some damage but nothing permanent, according to Rudy, my right hand man. He is a native of the island of Grenada and knows his bananas. By next spring they will be good as new, he tells me. All of this activity draws to our attention the fact that we are well into the autumn season, regardless of what growing zone you happen to live in. That means that we need to be thinking of the jobs that are ahead of us that must be done before the really cold winter arrives. Winter (oh how I hate to use the ‘w’ word already!) is a wall for gardeners: miss the deadline that it conveniently provides and bingo, your garden is susceptible to goodness knows what. Rabbits, mice, frost, freeze/thaw cycles. They play their role in challenging the gardener to sharpen our focus on the issues that really matter.
- Putting the spiral plastic collars on young fruit trees to protect them from rodent damage.
- Spraying the broad-leafed evergreens with Wiltpruf (an anti-desiccant) to prevent the drying effects of winter wind.
- Fertilizing your lawn for the last time with CIL Winterizer (the most important application of the year).
- Sharpening the lawn mower, cleaning out the cutting deck and changing the oil: draining it of gas, after the last cut.
- Wiping down all of your digging and cutting tools with an oily cloth.
- Finally (I leave this to the end) hilling up the roses for winter to prevent damage from freeze/thaw cycles.

All of this provides a gentle reminder that now is a great time to plant spring colour in the form of spring flowering bulbs. Don’t do it now and you could be in for a dull early spring. Do it now and the colour that results will put a spring in your step, a smile on your face; it will lighten your burden and remind you that winter was just a necessary stop in our annual journey around the calendar. Without it we would not appreciate the beauty of spring nearly so much.
Keep your knees dirty.

No one could have predicted 5 years ago where the ‘local food’ movement would go. Or that there would even be a ‘local food movement’! For Canadian gardeners the idea of eating food that is grown within 100 miles/kilometers or meters from home is very exciting. Perhaps the very message of eating locally grown fruits and veggies is preaching to the choir – but in any case – gardeners are fully on board, you can be sure.

The benefits of eating locally produced food cannot be overstated: generally fewer chemicals (or none at all!) are needed to produce great food that does not have to endure long distances to get to market, it tastes better, is better for you and it supports the local economy.

I might add that growing your own food is a great way to bring people together too. It is a poorly kept secret that gardeners are generous with information. Ask an experienced gardener how to grow most anything and you will gain the benefit of his or her knowledge without prodding. Conversation flows between gardeners with a shared interest in food gardening. In short you could say that the activity of gardening cures shyness!

As you gather round the Thanksgiving table next week, give the abundance of Canadian gardens some thought.

And be thankful that we live in a country where our soil and climate generally lends itself to feeding the nation. Right from our own backyards.

As we focus on the harvest and the success of our crop

s, let us not forget the beauty of these edible plants. Growing food plants in the garden provides us with sustenance – to be sure. But have you thought about feeding the soul with food plants? Put another way, the ‘look’ of food plants can provide an appearance that draws people into your garden just as a flowering shrub or flowering perennial can. Truth is, there is a lot of colour in the new Swiss Chard varieties that anyone will find attractive. Not to mention the textured blue leaves of a Savoy Cabbage (how are they any different from a large leafed Hosta, from this point of view?), the fine leaves of a carrot could be mistaken for a fern (in the sun, no less!), the flowers of your runner beans are as ornamental as a clematis, when you get down to it.

You get the point.

Of course, this is coming from a guy who prefers to travel the back roads of the country vs. highways so that I can get a look at many of the fine vegetable gardens on Canadian farms and rural properties. To me, the straight rows of edibles equal the vision of a flowering perennial garden. The look is different, to be sure. But given that much of the food that we eat comes from the garden, our appreciation for the sight of it should be deeper.

Mark Cullen